Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain - Marx Studies - The Continuing Relevance of Capital

This year we celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the completion and publication of Marx’s CAPITAL in Paris in 1867. Marx had intended to publish a six volume critique of political economy; volumes on capital, landed property, wage-labour, the state, international trade and the world market, but he only ever published the first volume of CAPITAL in his life-time. Volumes two and three of CAPITAL were edited and published by Engels from Marx’s notes after his death in 1885 and 1894 respectively. The three volumes of THEORIES OF SAURPLUS VALUE, popularly known as the fourth volume of CAPITAL, were edited by Karl Kautsky and published between 1905 and 1910. The first volume was published in English as A HISTORY OF ECONOMIC THEORIES in 1952.

Marx had decided to write a great study of economics in 1845 and much of 1851 was spent in the British Museum reading books on political economy, filling some fourteen notebooks with quotations, statistics and critiques of political economists. In April 1851 Marx told Engels that he had almost completed all his studies and in about five weeks he would be finished with “the whole economic shit”, as he called it. In 1858 Marx was working on the GRUNDISSE, the first draft of CAPITAL. Between 1864 and 1865, Marx wrote the manuscripts of the first three volumes of CAPITAL and two years later published the first volume.

Marx the Socialist Revolutionary

Marx was foremost a socialist revolutionary. He wrote CAPITAL with one single objective in mind - as a contribution to the self-emancipation of the working class from capitalism.

Marx saw capitalism as an impediment to human self-creativity, co-operative social labour and the free association of men and women. He also saw capital accumulation as an anti-social force with negative consequences for the working class; foremost in preventing production and distribution from being extended and used just to meet human needs.

Marx may have started his book with the analysis of the commodity but it took place in a social system in which a propertyless working class was forced to sell its labour power as a commodity to a property owning capitalist class whose wealth and privilege was protected by the capitalist state. Class, class interst and class struggle leap out at the reader from every page. CAPITAL is not an economic text book for undergraduate economists.

Marx’s revolutionary objective would give CAPITAL its continued and enduring relevance to the working class as a classic socialist text - which it is. However, no-one has ever bettered Marx’s analysis and critique of capitalism. CAPITAL provides the working class with a theory to grasp capitalism in its real and historical movement from feudalism to a potential, but necessary socialist revolution.

Marx has sometimes been accused of presenting the movement and expansion of capital as a form of “historical inevitability”. This accusation misrepresents Marx’s application of the materialist conception of history to the historical processes described in detail in two chapters of CAPITAL; The Expropriation of the Agricultural Population (Chapter 27) and The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist (chapter 31).

In a letter from Marx to Zasulich in March 1881, he said:

In analysing the genesis of capitalist production, I said:

“Thus, the capitalist system is based on the radical separation of the producer from the means of production…The basis of this whole evolution is the expropriation of the peasants. Only in England has this been accomplished in a radical manner…But all the other Western European countries are undergoing the same process”

The “historical inevitability” of this process is thus expressly restricted to Western European countries. The reason for this restriction is indicated in this passage from chapter XXXII:

“Private property produced by the labour of the individual…is supplanted by capitalist private property, which rests on the exploitation of the labour of others, on wage labour
” (ibid., p.340)
(Letters on CAPITAL, 1983, p.204)

In fact, from 1867 to to-day, one hundred and fifty years later, capitalism has become a global system of class exploitation. Marx’s theory of history was able to help him see how capital would unfold and dominate society as a system of class exploitation in a manner no different from previous social systems, when other theories were wholly inadequate for the task. Marx’s theory was able to anticipate the tracing of real historical events – future crises, continuous class exploitation and class struggle. In the 21st century, a world working class now faces a world capitalist class, irreconcilably and politically, over the ownership of the means of production and distribution.

No scientific understanding of capitalism is possible without a reading of CAPITAL. And Marx illustrated this understanding in a very unique way.

Marx began with simple commodity production; the movement where a commodity exchanges for money, which in turn allows other commodities to be bought and sold. And he represented this transaction with the formula C-M-C where C is the commodity and M is the money.

Marx then looks at a fully developed capitalist economy. Here, the formula changes to become M – C- M’. M stands for capital in the form of money producing commodities which, when sold, realise more money M’ than when the process first began. For Marx M’ represented surplus value. And he went on to show that the formula could be expanded to reveal M – C…P…C, - M’. Here the capitalist starts with money (M) and buys commodity inputs ( C ), along with labour-power (LP) to produce commodities to create surplus value as M’. From this formula Marx was able to show capital in motion proceeding from one circuit to the next, powered by the exploitation of the commodity labour-power.

CAPITAL illustrated the coercive power of the capital-labour relationship and the mental and physical torment capitalism inflicted upon the working class in the process of commodity production and exchange for profit.

Many of the examples Marx gave of the lives of workers in mid-19th century Britain could have been applied equally to the conditions faced by workers today in such countries as Vietnam, India and China. There are, of course, working conditions in the US and Europe which is also very similar to the ones found in Marx’s day. The working conditions forced on workers at Sports Direct, for example, come to mind.

And the working class generally, whether their wages are high or low, still remain mere “appendages to the machine”, while constantly pumping out “surplus value” to keep a minority capitalist class in a life of luxury and privilege.

At one point in CAPITAL Marx wrote of the conditions of working class imprisoned within the capitalist system in the following terms:

…within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labour are brought about at the cost of the individual labourer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital


It establishes an accumulation of misery, corresponding with accumulation of capital. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital (Capital Volume 1, The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation Penguin ed. 1990 pp799 – 800)

However, there is also a positive conclusion to the labour process in CAPITAL which is often overlooked by some commentators who see the working class permanently trapped within the system of capital accumulation:

Hand in hand with this centralisation, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale, the cooperative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as means of production of combined, socialised labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime. Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriat2d (The Historical tendency of Capitalist accumulation p929)

Workers can free themselves from the chains that bind them to capital. However, freedom from capitalism has to be a conscious, democratic and political decision. A class that acts “for itself”, as Marx once remarked. And a class united within a principled socialist party with socialism and only socialism as its objective.

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